Powell’s Books: A Gem in the Pearl District

I’m the kind of girl who can’t resist a booklist. Tell me you have a list of ten, twenty-five, one hundred books that I need to read before I die, and my curiosity is piqued. That being said, my attention usually wanes rather quickly when I disappointingly find that a booklist is just like all the others. All of those classics written by white males are great, but we’re just not on the same page anymore (forgive the pun), and we need to go our separate ways; it’s for the best. As I explored the website for Portland, Oregon’s iconic book emporium, Powell’s City of Books, I came across the staff’s “25 Books to Read Before You Die.” As always, I felt that same need to peruse their selections with an accompanying sense of trepidation, but for the first time, it proved unfounded. The first book listed was 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean author. The second was All about Love by bell hooks. It was love at first read.

This list, as well as Powell’s mission to sell new, used, and rare books alongside each other, indicates a larger interest in sharing as many diverse, unique perspectives with their patrons as possible. Like many larger bookstores, their website offers the questionably separated “Literature” category, but this category is split into subcategories ranging from “Oceania” to “Urban Life”; Powell’s doesn’t just stick some Hemingway, Thoreau, and Orwell in there and call it a day. Yes, Powell’s is a business – and an incredibly successful business at that, with five physical locations in Oregon and an immensely popular website for readers around the world to utilize. However, they are quite successful at portraying that business as one concerned with offering a cultural and global education through stories.

Why does this matter, though, especially if I am going to make you wait a few weeks before I describe the actual bookstore (which I will note here is so large that a map is actually required, lest you become trapped amongst the maze of shelves and must resign yourself to munching on the books in the cooking section of the Orange Room for survival)?

42196For me, it matters because Portland, Oregon, is white. Ivory individuals. Cream-colored commuters. An eggshell electorate. Vanilla visitors. White people everywhere. It is neither a necessarily positive or negative thing, but Portland has consistently been ranked one of the top ten whitest major cities in the country. In 2010, Portland’s Pearl District (in which Powell’s City of Books is located) was populated by approximately 5,997 people, and of those, an overwhelming majority – 84.9% – reported themselves as identifying as only White. In contrast, only 7.6% identified as Asian, 3.9% as Latino/a, and a mere 2.4% as Black or African-American. While Portland’s population is on the rise, it is privileged, mobile, educated, white twenty-somethings who are flocking to the land of microbreweries, maple bacon doughnuts, and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis. Because four of Powell’s stores are located in Portland, with the remaining fifth in nearby Beaverton, it is necessary to understand the demographic makeup of the clientele and their perception of their place in the world if one hopes to understand how Powell’s mission is marketed and fulfilled. Tim Cresswell understands place as being “space invested with meaning in the context of power” (12), and Powell’s role as a community space and the “subjective and meaningful attachment” (7) people assign to it is intertwined with the larger attachments to the neighborhood as a whole.

As stated, Powell’s City of Books (the flagship location) is our main interest here, so let’s take a further look at its home.

After a long and varied history, the Pearl District has become a hub of cultural activity that draws in successful professionals. The median age in 2010 in the centrally located district was 39.5 for men and 38.5 for women, and while there are children running around the inviting park spaces, predominantly non-family households occupy the warehouse-turned-loft apartments and the towering condos. Nearly half of the professional men and women are involved in management, sales, and office jobs (46.2% and 41%, respectively), and 15% of the workforce hold elite positions such as CEOs, CFPs, presidents, etc. However, this upscale neighborhood is hardly stuffy. With its wide variety of boutiques, fitness centers, cafés, and restaurants, its numerous art galleries and performance spaces, and its emphasis on sustainability, it is no surprise that the district was listed as the fifth of Forbes’ “Best Hipster Neighborhoods” in 2012. You can find some of these businesses in the map below; restaurants are denoted by pink circles, while artistic spaces are in green, and notable shops are in blue.

While you can certainly find comfort food, brew pubs, and four Starbucks locations in “The Pearl”, the district also boasts “a foodie’s playground”, with options ranging from Zataar’s Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine, to Andina Restaurant’s South American dining and live music. The district is also renowned for its vibrant art scene. After spending the afternoon enjoying curated exhibitions, poetry readings, coffee, and conversation at the Glyph Café and Arts Space, one only needs to take a five-minute walk to go enjoy a show at the Gerding Theater at the Armory, which hosts one of the country’s top twenty theatre companies. There is nary an Urban Outfitters to be found in the district, which instead offers shops like Sabina’s Style, a women’s clothing store that features international fashions created by a collection of designers spanning the globe.

The dominating presence of businesses that endorse some sort of engagement with culture poses the question of whether the sense of place that is evoked in the Pearl District and that is promoted by its successful, upper-middle class white population is merely, as Tim Cresswell considers, “a kind of aestheticized difference” in which diversity is treated as “picturesque” (78). This is not to say that the overwhelmingly white population of the Pearl District is incapable of appreciating diversity simply because of their whiteness, but if place is a way of “seeing, knowing, and understanding the world” (11), how are we to understand the Pearl District as a place in which bits of so many other places are mixed together? How do people conflate “Oregon-ness” with worldliness that is emphasized so proudly in their perception of their home?

These businesses seemingly allow for a performance of culture, but the presence of Powell’s City of Books in the district leads me to hope that books awaken a genuine curiosity that cannot simply be met by partaking in some Polynesian or Cretan food. Readers can be exposed to their privileges and ignorance when coming across an issue or idea they have never considered before – regardless of the genre through which it is introduced. It is my hope that Powell’s presence as the sole bookstore in the Pearl District offers that experience to its patrons who have perhaps never realized the impact of gentrification or have noted the lack of diversity in their bubble of “urban renaissance”.


Brennan, Morgan. “America’s Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods.” Forbes. 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2012/09/20/americas-hippest-hipster-neighborhoods/>
City Data, Pearl District Neighborhood, Portland, Oregon. <http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Pearl-Portland-OR.html>
City Data, Portland, Oregon. <http://www.city-data.com/city/Portland-Oregon.html>
Cresswell, Tim. “Defining Place.” Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 1-14.
Cresswell, Tim. “Reading ‘A Global Sense of Place’.” Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 53-79.
Hammond, Betsy. “In a Changing World, Portland Remains Overwhelmingly White.” Oregon Live. 2009. <http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/01/in_a_changing_world_portland_r.html>
Pearl District Census Profile, 2000 and 2010. <http://www.portlandoregon.gov/oni/article/376008>

City Data, Pearl Race Breakdown. <http://pics.city-data.com/nraces/42196.jpg>
Powell’s City of Books. <http://explorethepearl.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/powells_logo.jpg>

Linked Text
24 Hour Church of Elvis. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24_Hour_Church_of_Elvis>
Explore the Pearl: The Official Site of Portland’s Pearl District. <http://explorethepearl.com>
Portland Beer. <http://www.portlandbeer.org/breweries>
Powell’s Books. <http://www.powells.com>
Voodoo Doughnuts. <http://www.voodoodoughnut.com/>

Google Maps: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Orgeon. <https://www.google.com/maps/@45.522979,-122.681147,3a,75y,322.41h,80.85t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s5NkuMcbDEc59Xj8vUGat5A!2e0?hl=en-US>
Powell’s City of Books and the Surrounding Pearl District. <https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/embed?mid=zuFlthoYnoeA.kbo_Q5CoHrVo>